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Zhang Fan, leaving Beijing for England at the age of 18, has fulfilled his dream of studying physics and becoming a sophomore at Cambridge University.

Over the past four years, he has lived in a foreign land on his own.

Though very worried about him at first, Li Jianhua, his mother and an art editor with a newspaper, said she believed it was the right choice to agree to her son's decision to study abroad.

When Zhang was offered a full scholarship by a preparatory school in England, he also received an admission notice from the Department of Physics at Peking University.

"At that time, we were very hesitant as to which to choose. We were afraid two years' study at an English preparatory school may lead our son nowhere," his mum said.

"Besides, we were worried that a young kid like him may not be able to adjust to his new environment well."

It was Zhang's willingness to study abroad and encouragement from teachers at Peking University that pushed the couple to send their only son overseas.

Fortunately, Zhang encountered a kind host family in his first two years there.

"We felt very relieved after reading our son's first letter from England telling us how he spent the first month there," said Li, recalling how her son opened a bank account and how he went to nearby colleges to attend courses he was interested in. "I believe my son's experience will hold him in good stead in his future career and life."

But Li says she does not believe in the motivation of parents who send their children abroad as part of following a trend.

As the age of students studying abroad is dropping, Li accused their parents of being very irresponsible.

"Not knowing what their children like and want, these parents could ruin their children's whole life," said Li.

Zhang said he has met many Chinese students, most of whom should study at a junior high school in China, but were instead sent by their rich parents to England. There they are free from discipline and do nothing but party and spend money.

"They just don't know what they want and what they should do," he added.

But it seems more Chinese parents are starting to recognize the problem.

Liu Zengquan, a businessman in Beijing, said: "Going abroad at the age of 18 or 19 -- after graduating from high school -- would be the best choice."

Liu's son, Liu Qiuyang, has just graduated from the Beijing World Youth Academy -- a school that enrolls international students and offers the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. He has received an offer from the University of Windsor in Canada.

Claiming money is no object, Liu said a child knows the difference between right and wrong by the time he or she has graduated from high school.

It is a perception among many parents in China.

"Children going abroad when very young may be able to learn a foreign language quickly, but they cannot take good care of themselves," said Li Ke, whose son has also just graduated from high school and plans to study abroad after finishing school at the Central Academy of Drama.

Another parent, Liu Luni, said children should spend the three years of junior high school at home with their parents "because that period is a very important phase in their life."

Liu, whose son is going to junior high school in September, said she will send him abroad after he graduates from college.

"My point of view may differ from others, but students can gain a solid background of basic knowledge in Chinese colleges and universities," she said.

In fact, people with higher education and years of working experience are among those Chinese now studying abroad.

For 30-year-old He Xiangyan, June 27 was a day to celebrate. She received her long-awaited visa to study at the University of Arizona in the United States.

"Through studying abroad, I believe I can obtain a better career," she said. "Also, such an experience will enrich my life."

He, who works at a foreign-funded supermarket in a suburb of Beijing, said: "Like a dream coming true at last, I have pursued this opportunity for five years."

She said she wants to return home in two years with a master's degree in retailing and consumer science.

Unlike He, there is an increasing number of well-educated Chinese have no idea of what path they want to follow when they return from studying.

He Zheng, a consultant with the Netherlands Education Support Office in Beijing, said: "As an emerging land of promise for many Chinese students, the Netherlands is attracting more people.

"Among the hundreds of applicants, there are either high school students or college graduates who have been admitted by Holland's universities and schools each year.

"Meanwhile, it is hard to predict if they will come back or not. The final decision depends greatly on their individual choice and future development abroad."

In 2002, Ge Jin, who then worked at a world-famous consulting company and was on a good salary, received admission notices simultaneously from Northwest University in the US and Britain's Oxford University. After a month of hesitation, he selected the British university.

"If everything goes as planned, I will probably return to China by the end of September," said Ge in an e-mail. He will graduate in autumn.

Overall, China still suffers from more of a brain drain than a brain gain. In the last 25 years, only about a quarter of the students have returned home after graduating, according to Ministry of Education statistics.

But the number of "sea turtles," a translation of the local nickname for Chinese returnees, is growing rapidly. In 2002, 180,000 Chinese students came home, up 47 percent from 2001.

There are still more Chinese people staying in the United States than returning. But a recent survey found that 80 percent of Chinese students now studying in the US said they would like to come back.

For many overseas Chinese, the new factories and office towers in major cities within China offer the same rosy future that the United States' Silicon Valley did a decade ago, they say.

At the same time, those wanting to return home often face opposition from their families. Many couples split up as the husband comes back to China and the wife and foreign-born children remain abroad.

(China Daily July 4, 2003)

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